How do We Think Better about the Future(s)?

You might expect me to begin an article about futures thinking by launching into the future right off the bat. But let’s take a step back first. One tenant of futures studies is that we need to look back to look forward. We need to look at what has happened so that we can make sense of what might happen. So, let’s start with a story from the past — my past.

When I was 25, without realizing it, I conducted a futures experiment on myself. I was working at a design innovation firm in Portland with smart, driven, amazing coworkers. I had purchased my first house a few years earlier — a little bungalow in NE that was in the “to-be-but-not-yet-gentrified” area where I could just as easily walk to a local art gallery as a dive bar. I was also in a relationship that looked great on paper; but something didn’t feel right. I could see my trajectory from there.

I did something that has since become a habit — I asked myself which I would regret more: maintaining this comfortable life and forgoing change, or changing everything and accepting both the possibility and the uncertainty it will bring.

To use foresight terms, I could see my expected future and, although attractive, something felt off. I looked at what would happen if I continued down this path and I didn’t feel passionate about it; so I started looking at other paths. I compared many — changing various aspects of my life, keeping controls. Could I change my job and not my location? Would that help? Could I change my relationship but stay in Portland? Finally, I asked myself if anything needed to stay the same at all. My answer surprised me — even if it didn’t surprise those closest to me. I realized my answer was no; that at this point in my life nothing needed to stay the same. To check this, I did something that has since become a habit — I asked myself which I would regret more: maintaining this comfortable life and forgoing change, or changing everything and accepting both the possibility and the uncertainty it will bring. One quote comes to mind: “There’s no growth in the comfort zone, and there’s no comfort in the growth zone”. To be honest, I’m not quite sure who said that, but it was uniquely poignant for that time in my life.

So, I sold my house, packed up all my belongings in a 10-foot Uhaul, and moved to San Francisco where I knew no one and had a new job waiting for me that, I admit, I wasn’t quite sure about. At first, it was a jarring difference from the life I had been living, but the entire time I knew that this was a path I needed to take.

Since then I have continued to shift and assess my life. I went to graduate school and found a community of people that thought the way I did. I became a futurist. Ironically this wasn’t something I thought was possible, but I took the first step — I laid the groundwork for it to happen and then allowed myself to be open to the possibilities. It started by questioning my assumptions about what “must be”, and being open to changing them.

I got my creative start working with Adidas as a conceptual designer — utilizing design research to redesign identity systems for the NBA, MLS and Olympics, and quickly moved over to design and innovation firms. Some of the most intriguing projects for me was working with brands like P&G, Sony, and Shiseido to create long-term visions for their products, brands, and organizations. This is where I began to think beyond a two-year product cycle, and more towards a 10 or 15 year out vision. Products I worked on are household names and are used every day — but it wasn’t the specific product that was intriguing to me, it was the approach. This is where something inside said, “Aha! Focus here! This is super cool!” This is where my future gazing started.

After moving down to San Francisco, I was lucky to find a graduate program that played both to my interests and my strengths. I enrolled in California College of the Arts’ MBA in Strategic Foresight where we combined business acumen with design strategy and foresight practices. This is where I added a process and tools to my inherent future questioning.

I full-heartedly believe that we live in a time where we can no longer afford NOT to think about the future. Futures aren’t only accessed by those with a degree. We can all think about the future — we just need some guidelines to help us.

Broadening our view of the future allows us to be more creative

A major mistake we make as humans when thinking about futures, is that we tend to base them on what we already know or have experienced, rather than accepting that the future will be inherently different. Earlier I mentioned we need to look back to look forward — and we do! But we don’t look back so that we can copy the past into the future (unless you are ‘90s fashion which is inextricably making a comeback right now). Instead we look to the past so that we can recognize patterns, acknowledge them, and use that information to inform our understanding of how such patterns may progress into the future.

When we, as humans, think about futures we tend to look like we are holding binoculars up to our faces. We are grounded in the present, desperately trying to bring the future into view. But if we only use binoculars tied to the past or present we know, then our observed future is just an expected trajectory. If we only see the future through the two lenses of our binoculars, we are severely limiting our view — we are missing out on a lot of other futures.

To fix this common mistake, we need to broaden our view of the future. Instead of binoculars, we need an observatory. We need to look at the whole sky — not just a few stars. Another way to think about this is that we need to reframe from “what has worked before will work again” to “how might our previous success and failures enable future visions”. We need to reframe from past/present thinking toward future thinking.

“Any useful statement about the future should at first appear to be ridiculous.” —James Dater

I believe in foresight and stretching the possible. It allows us to be more creative — to get outside the realm of the everyday to envision greater things. It pushes our boundaries. James Dater is a Professor and Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is also widely regarded as the modern father of futures studies and has famously said “any useful statement about the future should at first appear to be ridiculous.” Let’s break that down:

Any statement about the future — you need to make a declaration about the future
Should at first appear — upon first blush, not the entire time
To be ridiculous — it challenges assumptions, it makes people say “what?!

But, only at first. Over time this ridiculous statement might become less and less so. It might become intriguing, and then feasible, and then real.

Imagine a Jetsons episode from the ‘80s — they all drove around in these ridiculous autonomous flying cars. Impossible, right? Well, just last year Uber launched a whole fleet of driverless cars. In February they hired someone from NASA to help them take the next step. And in July, we can expect flying drones to be taxiing people in the skies of Dubai.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there have been some statements made about the future that, in their time period, made complete sense — only to be proven utterly uninspiring later. Take for example the 1966 Time magazine that declared “remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop… because women like to get out of the house.” I mean, I’m a woman, I like getting out of the house and into the woods to go running or hiking pretty frequently, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what they meant. In retrospect, they missed the idea that women would join the work force. While that statement may have been entirely feasible in the ‘60s, today we might react to that statement with shock and scorn. This underlies the point I am making — that statements about the future NEED to be ridiculous to push us forward.

A few tools that will help us all think about the future better

I’ve told you why I believe in foresight, but what is it? One thing we know for sure is that foresight is not a singular prediction. It is the consideration of many futures to develop a strategy moving forward.

The Cone of Possibilities is a tool we use in foresight and futures studies to help depict the idea that there are many future possibilities. This is an easy way of visualizing how we can examine many different futures to understand how to make better decisions in the present.

There are four parts to the cone of possibilities. The apex is today. Our past stretches out behind us, further to the left. The largest cone represents all potential future options, everything that could happen.

Let’s imagine you are currently a graphic designer. For instance, one possible future that you become the Chief Design Officer at Google. A stretch for many, but possible nonetheless. The middle cone represents those futures most likely to happen. Following our example, a probable future is that you will own your own company focused on graphic design. It’s able to keep you afloat but might not grow past 10 employees (which would still be a success!). The final cone represents preferable futures — what you want most to happen. Preferable futures fall within the realm of the possible, but outside the realm of the probable — they stretch feasibility just a bit. Again, following our example, a preferable future might be that you own and grow a super boutique-focused design firm. It is so well known, and so desired that you get to pick only two clients a year which will pay more than a million in revenue. That would be awesome, right? What’s nice about this diagram of the cone of possibilities, is that within each of these cones, many different futures are possible. The examples I just gave are not the only possible, probable, or preferable futures; there is a wide array of each. This diagram is just a simple way of thinking about many different futures.

So how do we get out to these other futures? Let me use a story to help paint the picture. Imagine you are sitting by a stream with a paper boat. Your goal is simply to sail your boat as far down the stream as possible. You set your boat in the water and within a few feet it is snagged by a stick and runs aground. What it needs, you realize, are tools for navigation — a sail or a rudder, or some way to navigate the stream. Getting to your futures is very much like this paper boat. People need tools to best navigate their many futures.

Start with an expected future, then push to extremes

The idea of providing people a way to access the tools of foresight is what prompted my co-author, Julia Rose West, and me to write What the Foresight. We wanted to bring tangible futures methods to people using a blend of design thinking and foresight. We need to start with a baseline — or expected future. This is the grounding from which will launch our exploration into many futures. The many futures will take the form of extremes — we’ll push ourselves out to the boundaries first to explore a wide range of possibilities. After exploring many, we’ll identify a preferable future. This can be one of the possible futures explored earlier, or a combination of several. Then we’ll bring that preferable future back to the present — we’ll backcast it to understand steps needed to get to our preferred future and create discrete actions to take in the present. Finally, we’ll plot the implications of those actions. As we know, all actions have consequences. While the actions we take may indeed get us to our preferable future, there may be other implications we need to plot out so that we can be prepared for many eventualities. This step is kind of like rapid prototyping our actions in relation to our futures.

This is a bit reminiscent of a design process, right? In fact, we are all designing and creating our futures.

Digging further into this process, there are five steps (all of which can be found in greater detail along with interactive exercises through What the Foresight):

1. Values
When exploring your futures it is important to first identify clear values upon which your possible futures might be built. These can be things like ambition, curiosity, independence, or family. Your values will be your guiding principles throughout the foresight process and will allow you to maintain a constant truth throughout each future you explore. One tool we use is a letter from the future. This could take a long form like writing a letter to your future granddaughter, or could take an extreme short form like tweeting your own obituary. I like the tweet because it forces you to synthesize. How do you want your life to be remembered in 140 characters? The words that give you goosebumps, the ones that stand out to you are your values. One trick I also like to use is asking those close to me to check my values once I create them. I’m not asking for their permission, but sometimes those closest to you can see something you might have a difficult time articulating. Throughout this process feel free to bring in close friends or colleagues to share and talk about these exercises with. Futures is not a solo sport.

2. Assumptions
Now that we know our values, it’s time to outline our Assumptions. This exercise is all about admitting what we expect our future to be. In other words, we are establishing our baseline. We all have assumptions about our future, and by acknowledging those assumptions up front, we give ourselves permission to move beyond them and explore other possibilities. If you are honest with yourself, what is your biggest assumption about the future? In other words, what do you expect to happen? Maybe you expect that using cows for meat consumption will continue to be legal in Texas. That is an assumption. To help break our own personal assumptions we’ll ask ourselves: if things continue as they are now, in five years my life will look like… what? This can be used not only for your life — but for a topic like farming and food consumption in Texas, for example. We’ll look at what needs to stay the same to make these assumptions true, and question whether, in fact something might need to change to make these assumptions true.

3. Possible Futures
For today, we are interested in maximizing the breadth of vastly different futures we can explore in a short time, so we’ll focus on the Alternative Futures methodology as an explorative tool. Alternative Futures is a method which utilizes a set of four archetypes for the future to prompt scenario writing. This method is used to maximize difference by creating extreme future scenarios.

The four archetypes used in Alternative Futures are: Growth, Constraint, Collapse, and Transformation. The Growth scenario is one in which certain elements of life continue to increase. In the US, especially in business, this is often the only scenario we can envision. The Constraint scenario is one where elements of life are deliberately managed. Take, for example, regulation by the government or in your place of work. The Collapse scenario is one where familiar life is disintegrating, with implications across all sectors of life. What is happening in Aleppo and broader Syria, I might argue, is an example of a modern-day collapse scenario. And lastly, the Transformation scenario is on where remarkable change occurs. This change is transforming the way we think. One example is the sudden adoption of smartphones. It is difficult for many to imagine life without the technology we carry around in our pockets, yet it wasn’t always this way.

4. Preferable Future Backcasting
Through the Alternative Futures method we have just explored four vastly different future worlds. Now it is time to identify a preferred future. This can be one of the four scenarios, or a combination of all of them. Once we have identified our preferred future, it’s time to backcast that future to create actionable next steps in the present. If in 20 years our preferred future is to have a well-known, super boutique, highly selective design firm that makes us over a million a year, we’ll ask ourselves: what will I have to do 15 years from now to make that goal a reality? What will I have to do in 10 years to make that 15 year action a reality? What about in five years, one year or today? If our goal is in 20 years to own a well-known super boutique, highly successful design firm, maybe our immediate action in the present is to start writing thought pieces that differentiate us from all the other graphic designers out there. We have created tangible, actionable next steps for ourselves in the present toward realizing our 20-year future goal.

5. Implications
We have identified some actions to take in the present to get us toward our dream of running a well-known design firm. Will these actions actually get us there? The key to looking at a variety of different futures is to make sure you understand the potential implications of each to decide on action in the short run.

The Implications Wheel (or Futures Wheel) is the first step toward making a preferred future tangible. We’ll start in the middle circle (see below diagram) with our primary action: write a thought piece about our perspective on graphic design. We’ll ask ourselves: If I write a thought piece, what might be an implication of that? Maybe I find that I like writing just as much as I like designing. Great, let’s write that in the next circle. We ask ourselves again, if I find that I like writing more than I like designing, what might be an implication of that? Maybe I’ll shift my daily focus from 100% designing to 50/50 designing and writing. We write that in the next circle. And we ask ourselves one more time: if I shift my focus to 50/50 designing and writing, what might be an implication of that? Maybe I’ll write my first novel next year. We’ll write that in the last circle. We’ve just mapped out one implication arm on this wheel, and while we did start with an action we thought would get us toward traveling in the future, in reality we went down a totally different path toward writing a novel. But, there are many arms in the Futures Wheel! It can be used to test out all the implications that might come along with actions or decisions, so that you can see potential trajectories before taking these actions. This will help you comparison plan in the immediate so that you stay on track toward your preferred future.

We’ve come to our last step. And just like a design process, both Julia and I strongly urge prototyping your futures. The final step is to make it tangible. Futures aren’t just for those who are educated in this discipline. Everyone has futures and everyone should have better access to their futures. Imagine if we could get better at exploring our futures. Picture how much better our society could be if we had a variety of future visions being created. If everyone, not just those with means, could think more critically about all their possible futures.

This is not a matter of intelligence or desire, it’s an access issue. Julia has been a huge driver of the socialization of this issue — and we have both been lucky enough to have had access. Now you have been introduced to it as well. By pushing our thinking out to extremes we can visualize not only possible futures, but futures never considered before. So, create a vision for yourself. Socialize it, test it, and iterate. While we can actively take steps toward our futures, they are never written in stone — your futures are yours for the creation. Everyone should enjoy the ability and access to create future visions for themselves. Through exposing people to this process, and allowing access to a foresight mindset, we increase our collective ability to create more interesting and diverse futures — for everyone.

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